Opening Remarks from LWUVS President Elisabeth MacNamara

Good evening and welcome to Council 2011. We are very excited about this meeting because with this format and location, we are trying something new. This is the last year in which Council will have a business component – that is the budget to adopt.

One of the reasons that we proposed going to a biennial budget was to allow us to re-imagine this meeting in every possible way – from where we hold it, to who attends and what we accomplish. This format is the first step.

Over the last year to year and a half, we have celebrated our history as we celebrated the League’s 90th birthday. So here is a little history. Does anyone know why we call this meeting Council? Ever wondered why the only official delegates are two representatives from each state?

We have a notion that everything we do in League sprang full-blown from the head of Carrie Chapman Catt in 1920, and nothing has ever changed, but we do evolve, and Council is a good example.

The League used to meet in Convention every year. Immediately before Convention and immediately after convention, an executive council consisting of the state presidents met to advise the National Board on its program of work.

This makes a lot of sense when you think about the means of communication at the time. In the late 1920s, with attendance dropping off at the annual Convention, the League changed to a biennial Convention.

Executive Council continued to meet in conjunction with Convention and also in the off-year. Eventually, the bylaws dropped the word “executive.”

In so many ways, it is fitting that we are here in 2011, looking back at the 2010 election and looking forward to the 2012 election, having just engaged in anniversary celebration.

We might think of ourselves in the eye of the storm right now, a brief period of calm before the winds begin to blow again. Not only are we in the eye of the storm in the immediate sense, we are also, quite possibly, living through historic times.

In 2008, we did something that most of us never thought we would live to see – we elected a man of color to the highest office in the land. I don’t know about you, but I was proud to be an American in November of 2008.

But since that moment, the American people have also reaped the whirlwind sowed over thirty years of “shrinking government.”  Add in the disaster that is Citizens United and we are no longer in the eye just of the storm, but we are in the eye of the perfect storm – a combination of unprecedented economic woes, cutting edge communication technology and unlimited ability of some to spend money to influence elections. 

The media is focused almost entirely on the economy, but we in the League see a much broader assault on our democracy.  Immigration legislation in the states, voter photo ID, ultra partisan redistricting, cutbacks in early voting, and assaults on environmental protections, women’s health and the list goes on.

So having just looked back to where we came from, there could be no better time for us to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are made of!

Our founders were the last of generations of women who had fought for the right to vote, using any means that was effective in drawing attention to the wisdom and justice of giving women a voice in our democracy.
Our founders were also the first of generations of Leaguers who fought, using any means that was effective, to achieve great things – wage and hour laws, child labor laws, rural electrification, the United Nations, arms control, and yes, the Clean Air Act.

More recently, we can add to the list: the NVRA, or Motor Voter, HAVA, and the Affordable Care Act.

Throughout our history, before and after suffrage was achieved, we have been nonpartisan but political. That balance has always been uneasy. Consider these words from Maude Wood Park in 1921 at the second annual convention:

It was inevitable that in keeping the League as an organization free from any and all forms of partisanship…we would be misunderstood. Because we succeeded in our determination we were often accused in Democratic states of being a Republican organization and in Republican states of being Democratic. When these accusations were plainly disproved, our opponent frequently came back with the charge that we were intending to form a separate political party for women or else that we were Bolsheviki…It will take time to make our stand clear to a large number of persons who do not themselves think clearly; but the facts are with us and must in time be accepted by all who do not intend to deliberately misrepresent our position.

It has been easy, but it has also been necessary.

Women wanted the vote because of the power the vote gave to influence public policy.

The League wasn’t founded just to educate new women voters. The League was also founded to concentrate the power of the woman vote to achieve public policies beneficial to women and, therefore, beneficial to our society.

The power of the vote is the only reliable answer to the moneyed interests seizing control of our government. That was true in 1920, and it is true today.

What are we made of? What are we willing to do to be effective in this environment?

Behind me, you are seeing some examples of what our founders were willing to do to get the power of the vote. They were willing to get out of their comfort zone and take long chances, make bold, political statements to effectively get their message across.

These demonstrations look quaint today and would not be effective tactics in an internet driven communication era, but in their day, these were daring moves.

What we hope to discuss over the next few days, is ways in which we can be effective in our own communities, local, state, and national in communicating what we believe to be true – that government has a positive role to play in our society; that without sound government policies with respect to the health of our people, our environment and our economy, we will lose opportunity, we will lose lives.

The first step, as always, is to help America realize the power of the individual vote. To do that, we must make sure

  • that every eligible citizen can and is registered,
  • that every eligible voter understands the electoral process and is armed with the information she or he needs to cast an informed vote, and
  • that every voter turns out to vote in 2012.

We must model good citizenship by never letting our elected officials forget that all the money in the world is no substitute for an informed electorate.

Let me close by quoting Carrie Chapman Catt addressing the Jubilee convention of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in St. Louis in 1919:

Every suffragist will hope for a fitting commemoration of this 50th Anniversary of our organization and the Golden Jubilee of the first grant of full suffrage to women. She will hope for a memorial dedicated to the memory of our brave departed leaders, to the sacrifices they made for our cause, to the scores of victories won.

She will not be content with resolutions of self congratulation; with speeches of tribute; nor will any suffragist propose a monument built of marble which only a few would see and fewer comprehend. What then shall it be? I venture to propose a memorial whose benefits will bless our entire nation and bring happiness to the humblest of our citizens.

What vainglorious proposal is this do you ask? I propose no marvel; merely the most natural, the most appropriate and the most patriotic memorial that could be suggested – a League of Women Voters to “Finish the Fight;” and to aid in the reconstruction of the Nation.

We must never forget that we are that League, we are those patriots!

To finish the fight and to truly reconstruct our nation, we must work together and support each other, always bearing in mind that it is we who have the power of the vote and the right and the ability to use it!